A 21-foot killer whale weighing up to 6,000 pounds died after beaching itself on the Atlantic coast in central Florida Wednesday, the first stranding of its kind ever recorded in the Southeast US.
The adult female orca found itself stranded before dawn on a beach in Palm Coast, located more than 60 miles south of Jacksonville, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Derek Pence was taking his usual morning walk in the area of Jungle Hut Park when he spotted something large just off the shore.
“I saw white on the bottom,” Pence told the station WESH. “I took a picture and sent it to the biologist I was talking to, and she confirmed that it was an orca.”
The eyewitness separately told the Palm Beach Observer that the biologist initially thought he was “crazy” when he told her the whale looked like an orca.
The apex predator appeared to be still alive at around 6 a.m., but by the time rescuers arrived it had died.
“It was awful,” Pence said. “I was really hoping for a rescue and not a recovery.”
Video posted by the sheriff’s office showed the lifeless orca with its distinctive black-and-white body laying on its side as waves splashed against it.
Orcas are among the largest and most powerful marine mammals in the ocean.
“This is extremely rare. We have never had a record of a stranded killer whale in Florida or the southeast United States,” Blair Mase, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
At this time, experts do not know why the whale ended up off the Florida coast, or why it died.
Mase said there are no obvious signs of trauma to the killer whale.
“It could be environmental factors. It could be some disease impacts. It could be noise that could impact their equilibrium,” Mase said.
Crews from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the sheriff’s office were on hand to load the carcass onto a truck so that a necropsy can be performed, Messod Bendayan, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said in an email.
It could take weeks or even months to determine the cause of the whale’s unusual stranding and death.
“We have veterinarians and very skilled biologists and pathologists who will be on scene to conduct the necropsy of the animal,” Erin Fougeres, the Marine Mammal Stranding Program administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Region, told CNN.
“They’ll open up the whale and they’ll go through every organ system and look to observe if there’s any gross lesions, anything obviously wrong with the different organ systems, and they’ll take extensive samples from the whale, which will then send out to a lab, or multiple labs actually for analysis,” she explained.
It is estimated that there are about 50,000 killer whales living in every ocean in the world, but they are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska, according to NOAA.
The average lifespan for male orcas ranges from 30-60 years, and for females from 50-90 years in the wild.
Orcas are susceptible to becoming entangled in fishing gear, suffering from lack of food due to overfishing, as well as contamination from wastewater plants and oil spills.
With Post wires